Media

    The Poem of the Day Direct to Your SmartPhone?
    Modern Arabic Literature on the Worldwide Web

    Chestnut leaf with calligraphic composition. Ottoman Empire 19th century. © VG Bild-Kunst 2010 Jehat (www.jehat.com) is currently one of the top-ranked sites for modern Arabic poetry. Under the direction of poet Qassim Haddad, and financed by a Bahraini foundation, the multimedia portal provides information in seven languages (among them German, French, and Persian) on current trends in Arabic poetry. It also offers selected poems in translation, some of which are even available for download directly to smart phones.

    Ranked just below Jehat is Kikah (www.kikah.com), the bilingual Arabic-English literature site set up by Samuel Shimon in 2003. The Iraqi author, who lives in Great Britain, also co-edits the English-language journal for Arabic literature Banipal. Unlike Jehat, Kikah seeks not only to present contemporary Arabic literature, but also to encourage an exchange among world literatures, inter alia through translations into Arabic.

    Alongside Jehat and Kikah are numerous other ambitious sources of contemporary Arabic literature, most of them in Arabic, such as the Yemeni journal Anaween (www.anaween.net) or the journal of the literary publishing house Dar Al Adab. Internet offerings are also presented to some extent in English; some are even consistently multilingual.

    The motives for having an Internet presence are manifold. Commercial interests can play a role, as can political ones. Take, for example, the chapter dedicated to resistance poetry that the Palestinian Authority placed on its website. (www.pal-poetry.gov.ps)

    Navigating the abundance of online offerings often isn’t easy, even for Arabic speakers, and web support is still rare. Respected international journals for contemporary Arabic literature, such as the English-language Banipal (GB) or German-language LISAN (D/CH), have launched their own appealing internet sites. Yet even these don’t offer the comprehensive, regularly updated lists of links necessary to facilitate an interested user’s introduction to contemporary Arabic literature via the web.

    All the better then that literary experts at Marburg University have evidently recognised this lack. On the homepage of the Arabic Studies Department, those interested will find a partially-annotated list of links to Arabic literature, almost all of which are click-worthy, under the menu option ‘Materialen’ (Materials) - www.uni-marburg.de/cnms/arabistik/materialien/literatur.

    Technological possibilities still little used

    When searching for Arabic literature online, one occasionally encounters literary blogs or blogs about literature. Prominent examples include the (nearly 100% Arabic) online diary of the often-translated Egyptian novelist Alaa Al-Aswany (http://alaaalaswany.maktoobblog.com/), and the blog for the multilingual group of young Lebanese authors, ‘Beirut 39’ (http://beirut39.blogspot.com/). Yet so far very few Arabic literature websites make use of the diverse technologies available, whether interactive elements, multimedia formats, or multiple communication channels such as RSS-feed, podcasts, and Twitter. Most websites for Arabic literature are lexicon-style databases – or the electronic versions of cultural magazines originally conceived as print publications that still, in part, making parallel appearances on paper, such as the Palestinian literary magazine Al Karmel (www.alkarmel.org), or Banipal and Kalima. Exceptions include the quite technically sophisticated website of the exclusively Arabic, Oman-based cultural and literary journal Nizwa (www.nizwa.com), and the independent Jordanian multimedia portal Aramram (www.aramram.com); where, however, more videos and music are to be found than literature.

    An internet presence in Arabic and English

    Those wanting to read up on trends within contemporary Arabic literature may have to search a long time, but they won’t necessarily have to know Arabic. PEN offers a lively, constantly-growing font of information on authors from the Arab world on its English-language World Atlas website (http://penatlas.blogspot.com/).

    The online journal Arabic Literature (in English) (http://arablit.wordpress.com/), launched by Marcia Lynx Qualey of Cairo in 2009, provides non-Arabic speakers with the opportunity to gain an initial insight into contemporary Arabic literature through its laid-back format, its numerous topical contributions, cross-references and links.

    Although the digital version of the Los Angeles-based art and culture magazine Al-Jadid (available only in English) is not dedicated exclusively to culture, the reports on new prose and poetry out of the Arab world are accorded a large amount of space (www.aljadid.com/). The internetzine Kalima (Alkalimah) has been published in English and Arabic, both in print and online, since 2008. The editor of this academically-orientated medium for authors, literary scholars and critics is the professor of literature Sabry Hafez, who teaches at the School of African and Oriental Studies (SOAS) in London.

    A more commercial, but likewise English-Arabic resource, is Arab World Books (www.arabworldbooks.com), a book club that offers Arabic literature in the original and in translation and distributes it online. An international jury composed of non-Arabic literary scholars alongside Arabic authors like Gamal El-Ghitani is responsible for both choosing the books and providing content for the informative pages. Current jury members include, among others, the UK-based Arabic studies professor Marilyn Booth. The literature section (www.al-bab.com/arab/literature/lit.htm) of Brian Whitaker’s website, www.al-bab.com, is written in English and is, as such, a suitable jumping-off point for non-Arabic speakers. The Arabist and Guardian correspondent provides easy-to-read introductory texts on the pages for poetry and modern literature, as well as lists of links to relevant web sites, some of which do need updating.

    Functioning more as a database is the exclusively Arabic site of the Arab Writers Union AWU (based in Damascus, www.awu-dam.net), which aims to be a mouthpiece for all Arabic writers; for political reasons, however, many Arab authors feel that it does not represent them. The clearly-structured site contains details about members and union activities. The Arab Association of Internet Authors also provides information solely in Arabic.

    Arabic literature online? Endless opportunities

    Besides the many encyclopedia-like portals and networks and commercially or politically motivated projects, increasing numbers of individual Arabic authors have personal home pages, among them such well-known personalities as Lebanese writer Emily Nasrallah (www.emilynasrallah.com), the late Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish (www.mahmouddarwish.com), and the Moroccan essayist and novelist Fatema Mernissi (www.mernissi.net).

    It tends to be the younger and lesser-known purveyors of the craft who deliberately use the worldwide web to make themselves known and market their work, or to try out new forms of networking and collaboration. An Algerian poet reports how she wrote a book of poetry with a colleague from Morocco – solely through Messenger and e-mail. ‘The collaboration was very efficient, as there was none of the time and expense of postal mail, and we didn’t have to travel, either,’ the young author explains enthusiastically. She does, however, see drawbacks: ‘I would really like to meet my partner in person sometime.’ 

    The Internet has above all changed the reception of writing and the methods in which it is produced. Young authors are no longer dependent on the goodwill of editors to find a foothold in the market. The high cost of printing novels and poems on paper is no longer necessary to reach a reading public; instead, they can be made globally available with the click of a mouse. The public no longer has to be satisfied with the often limited and confusing selection at their local bookstore, but can go online to learn where recent titles have been published and how to access them.

    Risks

    There are many advantages to the internet as a vehicle for fine literature, but there are also disadvantages, most of which are not specific to the Arab world. Those providing a global audience with self-published material must be prepared for the possibility that their work will be copied or even altered in a way that goes against the original intent. Further problems include the lack of financial resources, fluctuations in personnel, and the resulting lack of consistency of many online publications. Sponsors and editorial teams come and go, and websites are left behind as half-finished ruins. There is a further problem regarding how work is received, both within the Arabic context and beyond. If the internet continues to gain importance as a platform for new authors, what happens to those writers who are not present on the web? Will they still be noticed?

    Open questions

    To date, the internet has primarily changed the methods of the production and reception of Arabic literature. The question now is to what extent the new medium will also shape the content of Arabic literature over the long term. Will the sheer volume of new authors lead to lower standards of content? And how will the role and function of editors evolve if authors can post their work directly, without having to grapple with a publishing house or its quality criteria and marketing strategies? A deeper analysis and evaluation of the effects of the internet on contemporary Arabic literature is desirable – as is the creation of a multilingual internet portal that allows for a regularly updated overview, as comprehensive as possible, of the presence of Arabic literature.
    Martina Sabra
    is a journalist specialising in the Arab world. She lives in Cologne.

    Translated by Lilan Patri
    Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Fikrun wa Fann
    June 2010

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